Sunday, April 13, 2003

Woods defines drama

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Shortly before 11 Saturday morning, Tiger Woods wriggled his feet in the sand of a greenside bunker at the ninth hole, on the verge of committing the unthinkable.

A crazy Masters was about to go completely insane. If Woods couldn't make the bunker blast and the resulting putt, he would miss the cut. Woods missing a Masters' cut is like Elvis being dropped from the idol team.

Half a mile down the street, Martha Burk's much-anticipated protest was rendered farcical by a bunch of nutjobs. Dave Walker wore a cap bearing the slogan Give War A Chance. Joseph J. Harper was there to support Masters chairman Hootie Johnson. He offered himself as the head of a "splinter group" of the Ku Klux Klan. "Are you suiting up later?" someone asked him.


But not compared to this:

Woods blasted from the bunker, 30 yards from the hole, to 4 feet. And made the putt.

"I knew that was for the cut,'' Woods said. "I said, 'Hell with it, just make the putt.' "

Jittery leaders

Four hours later, he returned to post a 6-under 66 in the third round. He's four shots behind the leader, Jeff Maggert, in perfect position to tighten some throats. Michael Jordan never made a comeback like this.

Woods downplayed his day, which is what he does. What Tiger Woods really feels about anything beyond green speed is open to speculation. The man is as revealing as a mask.

"You guys think we can turn on a switch, just like that," Woods said. No, we think you can do that.

Who else but Woods could go from life support to the leaderboard in one afternoon?

This wasn't about great shots. It was about pulling the focus helmet down around his ears and loading up the full mental arsenal. Only Woods holes a knee-knocking 4-foot putt simply to survive the cut, then embarks on a must-have round of 66 four hours later.

That, folks, is a switch.

Only reason to play

Someone asked Woods if, after making the cut, he still thought he could win. He was 11 shots and 50 players behind the leader.

"Yeah," he said. You could hear his incredulity from here to Savannah. Win? I can win. It's why I'm here.

Woods thought, "I'm only seven shots out of second place, anything can happen."

With anyone else, this is an errant wish. It's sound-bite bravado that nobody believes.

Not Woods. He has an ability to summon greatness when he needs it, in a way matched only by Jordan.

Woods snaked in a 35-foot downhill putt at the par-3 No. 6, and he knew the game was on. That got him to even par, and on the leaderboard for the first time all week.

He followed that with a seeing-eye approach and 4-foot birdie putt at No. 7. Just like that, Woods was only three strokes from the lead.

Some athletes rise to the occasion. Woods is the occasion.

Today, it will be interesting to see how the other leaders react to him. Jose Maria Olazabal has two green coats, Vijay Singh one. They know how to win. Do they know how to beat Woods?

Stay tuned. The protests are over. The Masters is just getting warmed up.


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